Pipehacker Review: A Unan

Sometimes all you need is a good bagpipe and a good tune. Breton pipers Xavier Boderiou, Sylvain Hamon, Hervé Le Floc’h, and Alex Meunier realize this as well and have produced an album of bagpipe music that is truly, all about the bagpipes and the tunes.

A Unan (translation from the Breton: “Of One”) takes the straight, virtuoso piping album pioneered by the likes of Gordon Duncan and Fred Morrison and continues in the same vein with an album full of “piper’s tunes” along with a smattering of original arrangements and instrumentation.

Xavier, Sylvain, Hervé, and Alex make it clear that that they are “of one” mind when it comes to a good tune. Many of the solo selections are part of the hardcore competitive piper’s repertoire and pay homage to the body of work of the last half-century. And perhaps this is not unintentional, as evidenced by the original piobaireachd “Salute to the 20th Century Master Piper” played by Hervé Le Floc’h. All sets are presented in accomplished style. “Twentieth-century masters” such as Donald MacLeod feature prominently in their capable hands with several tracks featuring alternating solo sets by each musician.

These guys never get outrageous and show a lot of polish. Even when they are getting “contemporary” as Xavier does in “A Bag of Fleas,” the arrangements are straight Scottish-style piping highlighting strong technique. Musical accompaniment, when it appears, is deft and understated with a feature on the character of the Highland bagpipe itself.

Traditional competition strathspeys and reels such as “Dora MacLeod,” “Tulloch Castle,” “Smith of Chilliecassie,” and “The Sheepwife” make appearances in sets such as “Charlie’s Welcome,” “Jimmy Young,” and the self-named “Tulloch Castle.” The tunes are all presented with a solid, easy-going metered style that really brings out the heart of the tune. Rhythm and clarity are given deference over flashiness and everything is delivered with effortless control. Sylvain uses this effortless fingerwork to great effect in the original, poignant piece “The Magic Flute.” A moving piece that is a highlight of the album. All tunes by each player are performed on solid, vibrant bagpipes offering a comfortable listen.

In Celtic Brittany, “piper’s tunes” also include traditional Breton dance music. The four pipers get together on the final track of the album for “Plinn” and show us all what this instrument can do in the hands of French Breton players. The track is pure Breton flavor and multilayered harmony and minimal percussion accompaniment, departing from the traditional Breton Bagads where the bagpipes are just one section of the larger ensemble. Here, the pipes are the feature and these players throw it out with energy and pride.

A Unan is great testament to the current state of Highland bagpiping in Brittany, a region, much like the United States, where folks have really only adopted the instrument as their own in the last one hundred years or so. Breton piping has always blended the old with the new but continues to take the instrument in ever winding directions with style, enthusiasm, and originality. A Unan is certainly an expression of that.

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